With nationalist demagogues rising to power in both India and Israel, Pankaj Mishra examines the parallel histories of violent partition, ethnic cleansing and militant patriotism that have led both countries into a moral wilderness.
Growing up in the 1970s in small town India, where nothing much happened, I was an avid reader of the foreign pages in the Indian newspapers. This is how I discovered one of my earliest heroes, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan. I remember being introduced to his legend by my grandfather, an upper-caste Hindu nationalist who was an admirer of militant patriots, especially those he supposed to be ranged against Muslims. He recounted keenly how Dayan had outmaneuvered numerically superior Arab armies in 1967, and how he had snatched the Golan Heights from Syria at the last minute.
When news of Dayan’s secret visit to India in 1978 as Israel’s foreign minister leaked and pictures of him appeared in the Indian newspapers, I was transfixed by his black eye-patch and mischievous grin. This image of vitality, courage and resourcefulness was confirmed by one of the first books that I read in English: Ninety Minutes at Entebbe, the account of a daring Israeli raid in Uganda to free hostages captured by Palestinian terrorists.
The Israelphilia that I shared with my grandfather was sharply at variance with India’s official foreign policy. Though the Hindu nationalists (then known as the Jana Sangh) clamored for close friendship between India and Israel – which they said were natural allies, apparently due to their implacable Muslim enemies – the government did not have diplomatic relations with Israel and supported the PLO, a fellow member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
But by then my grandfather had moved far from the ideals of postcolonial India (non-alignment, socialism, secularism) as defined by the ruling Congress Party. He had started on his rightward journey even before India’s partition and independence in 1947, when he, a feudal lord, lost most of his property and prestige to land reforms.
Hindu nationalism in general relied upon such simmering reservoirs of upper-caste dissatisfaction with India’s socialistic economy and non-aligned foreign policy, especially during the long decades, from 1947 to 1989, when the party of Nehru and Gandhi, the Congress, pushed the Jana Sangh, and later the BJP, to the political margins.
My grandfather had no interest in Judaism, or in any of India’s many faiths. Like many Hindu nationalists and Zionists, he was a secularist, impatient with religion’s unworldliness. He admired Israel for its proud and clear national identity – for the sharply defined religious and cultural ideology of Zionism and the patriotism it inculcated in Israel’s citizens. Israel, which was building a new nation in splendid isolation, surrounded by Arab enemies, knew what India did not: how to deal with Muslims in the only language they understood, that of force and more force.
India, by comparison, was a pitiably incoherent and timid nation-state, its claims to democracy, socialism and secularism compromised by a corrupt government’s appeasement of minorities (mainly Muslim) and neglect of Hindu heritage.
Hindu nationalism was much less about venerating Hinduism – most nationalists were not religious – than about constructing a strong, culturally homogenous nation state of the kind that had begun to emerge in post-Enlightenment Europe in the 19th century. Like many Hindu nationalists, past and present, my grandfather was led by his obsession with national cohesion into an admiration for Nazi Germany.
Reverence for Adolf Hitler – who is hailed as a hero in textbooks in the Hindu nationalist-ruled state of Gujarat, while Mein Kampf remains popular at bookstores – is one of the many sinister aspects of “rising” India today. This cult of Hitler as a great “patriot” and “strategist” grew early among middle-class Hindus. MS Golwalkar, the much-revered Hindu leader and ideologue, wrote in 1938 that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging itself of the “Semitic races” – and yet Golwalkar was also an admirer of Zionism.
This simultaneous veneration of Hitler and Israel may appear a monstrous moral contradiction to Europeans or Americans who see Israel as the homeland of Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. However, such distinctions are lost on the Hindu nationalists, who esteem Nazi Germany and Israel for their patriotic effort to cleanse their states of alien and potentially disloyal elements, and for their militaristic ethos. Many Indians and other colonised peoples hoped for Nazi Germany and Japan to at least undermine, if not defeat, the British Empire. My grandfather was among the Indians with a misplaced faith in Germany’s military capacity. He would have been horrified by the facts of the Holocaust if he had encountered them. But like so many Hindu nationalists, his main political anxiety during those years after the Second World War was whether Mother India would be partitioned into two countries; the subsequent creation of Pakistan as a separate state for Indian Muslims pushed all other historical traumas, especially those of distant Europe, out of view.